Nov 14, 2012 - By Christina George, Staff WriterFremont County deputy attorney Kathy Kavanagh described Makayla Marie Strahle, 11, as a girl excited for her school dance.
"She walked out the door that day and never came home," Kavanagh told the jury during opening statements Tuesday afternoon.
Roughly 30 attendees listened for more than an hour as Kavanagh and defense attorney Devon Petersen gave opening remarks in the trial against William Dean Barnes of Lander.
Tuesday was the first of what is expected to be up to a three-day trial in Lander's 9th District Court before Judge Norman E. Young.
Barnes is charged with felony aggravated homicide by vehicle and misdemeanor homicide by vehicle as well as maximum speed/too fast for conditions, passing stopped school bus with flashing red lights and exercise of due care by drivers.
The charges stem from a Dec. 20 crash east of Crowheart on Highway 26 at mile marker 89. The incident involved Barnes, who struck and killed the girl with his vehicle as she crossed the roadway to her home after exiting a school bus.
According to court documents, it was foggy that evening and the roadway was dry.
Kavanagh said Barnes was on his way home from a doctor's appointment in Jackson when he collided with the child at 6:50 p.m.
"The defendant never, never slowed down before he hit Makayla," Kavanagh said, saying the girl was next to a "huge yellow bus" with flashing lights and under a streetlight near her driveway.
"He hit her so fast her neck was instantly broken," Kavanagh continued. "She suffered trauma from the right side of her body."
Kavanagh told jurors they would need to decide if Barnes's actions were negligent or reckless.
"She never came home and told her mother whether her heart got broken, whether she got her first kiss, whether the dance was a disappointment," Kavanagh concluded. "The defendant got to drive home that night."
Petersen said Barnes did not know he was approaching a bus.
He said his client started slowing down because he could see headlights and could tell it was a large vehicle. Petersen said Barnes noticed porch lights on both sides of the road and believed the vehicle was slowing down to turn at a residence.
Petersen said there would be testimony that Barnes was traveling 57 mph on the 65 mph two-lane rural roadway when he collided with the girl. He said Barnes lowered his speed because of the patchy fog and light snow that began falling near Crowheart.
Petersen said the first time Barnes realized it was a bus was when he hit the girl.
He noted Barnes was sober, stayed on scene, answered questions and cooperated.
"He is a devastated man because of this," Petersen said. "It was simply a tragic accident."
Makayla's stepfather, Dan Sperry, who was a Fremont County sheriff's deputy at the time of the crash, was the first witness to take the stand.
He told jurors he and his wife have six children between them who all attended Wind River schools 35 miles away in Pavillion. The family has since relocated to Idaho.
Sperry said he and his family were home Dec. 20, and waiting for Makayla to be dropped off by the activities bus after the dance.
"I heard a loud thump and it sounded like a hood slamming or a ball being bounced off a hood," Sperry recalled.
He said there was a knock at the door, and it was his stepdaughter's classmate.
"He said 'Mr. Sperry come quick, come quick, there's been an accident,'" Sperry said.
He testified finding Makayla in the borrow ditch, lying on her side with an apparent broken leg and bleeding.
"I knew she was deceased," he added.
Petersen asked about Barnes at the scene, and Sperry said that Barnes approached him and his wife, who were at the girl's side.
"I yelled at him to get away," Sperry said.
"Are you upset by the way Makayla was dropped off by the school that day?" Petersen asked.
"Hindsight is 20-20," Sperry responded. "I'd definitely change things."
The state then called sheriff's deputy Nate Hindman, who was the first to arrive on scene after Sperry called him, and Fremont County deputy attorney Thomas Majdic took over questioning the witness.
Hindman said he responded to the scene as both a deputy and Sperry's neighbor. Hindman said he notified dispatch while en route to Sperry's, which was a mile away.
"It was pretty thick. Visibility was poor. Visibility was 200 yards at the most," Hindman said.
Hindman testified seeing the flashing lights about 150 yards away from the bus. As he got closer, he said he saw a white pickup truck with front-end damage parked in a turnout near the Sperry house.
Hindman went to the Sperrys who were still in the ditch with a "motionless" Makayla.
"I knelt down and tried to check for a pulse," Hindman continued. "I did check for a pulse and found nothing."
Hindman said he asked the bus driver to take the other students home and then return to the scene to give a statement.
Hindman said he also made contact with Barnes, who was sitting in his truck.
"He said that 'I didn't see any lights on the bus,'" Hindman said about Barnes.
Petersen asked about the visibility, which Hindman said was poor. Hindman said he could tell it was a bus from about 150 yards away.
Petersen asked if Hindman knew he was looking for a bus while en route.
"Yes," Hindman answered.
Majdic asked Hindman if he could see the top corner lights on the rear of the bus and if he was sure it was a bus.
"I can't think of anything else that looks like that," Hindman said.
Court proceedings resumed Wednesday morning with bus driver Fred Peterson taking the stand. Peterson detailed the training involved to drive school buses, as well as the vehicle's safety mechanisms. He said the vehicle's yellow lights atop the roof are manually activated 100 to 500 feet before the stop. Once stopped, Peterson said the stop sign on the side of the bus and the crossing arm in front of the bus automatically flip open. Flashing red lights also activate.
"I don't let the child off until I see the roads are clear," he said.
Peterson said, as routine, Makayla stood at the corner of the bus on the edge of the road until he motioned to her it was safe to cross.
Peterson said he had previously driven Makayla's siblings home, but Dec. 20 was the first time he met her.
He said the bus departed the school at 6 p.m. and that he kept his speed at 50 to 55 mph because of the vconditions.
"Sometimes you could see 200 yards ahead of you, sometimes less," Peterson explained. "I didn't go very fast that night because I just didn't feel it was safe."
Peterson said his lights were properly activated when he stopped to let the girl off, adding it is common for a child to cross the road.
It wasn't until the girl reached the left corner of his fender that he noticed lights approaching, Peterson said. He realized the girl was "in trouble" by the time she was near the white line on her house's side of the highway.
Peterson testified Barnes was traveling more than 40 mph at the time of the collision and that he didn't see his brake lights turn on until they were down the road.
Peterson said he took the remaining students to one of their family's homes and returned to the scene.
During cross-examination, Petersen asked questions about policy pertaining to operating a bus, pointing out state statute that requires buses be pulled over as far right as possible.
Petersen also said a white strobe light atop the roof is supposed to be activated in severe fog or snow. Peterson said he felt the fog wasn't severe enough to use the strobe light.
Boys on the bus
The fourth and fifth witnesses who testified Wednesday morning were brothers Klayton and Zachary Rose, both of whom were on the bus that night.
The boys testified seeing Barnes's lights passing them and hearing Peterson say someone hit the girl before he exited the bus.
"I could see like her backpack and her shoe and her sock, and I thought I saw a little figure where Makayla was," Klayton said.
Both boys said they got off the bus. Zachary, now 14, notified the Sperrys, and Klayton, now 12, got back on the bus.
"I don't think she made it," Klayton said he told his classmates. "Then they started crying even more."
The two also testified seeing the flashing lights activated while off the bus.
"They were like blinding me when I was crossing in front of (the bus)," Zachary said.
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